Prévost´s story about Manon Lescaut is an early Eighteenth Century romance that inspired Nineteenth Century opera composers. The girl is sensual, quite young and beautiful, the Chevalier Des Grieux rescues her both from the convent and an old seducer, but the attraction of splendor leads her astray and she will live in a palace with a rich protector. Eventually, Des Grieux has her back, but she will pay dearly: she is condemned to prison in the colonies , falls ill and dies in the arms of her lover.
In his charming opera Daniel Auber accentuates the lightness rather than the drama, but in the much better known "Manon" by Massenet the comedy of the initial acts becomes gradually more dramatic, though never losing its refined Gallic air. In Puccini´s 1893 "Manon Lescaut", his first success, there is less comedy and the drama becomes stark already in the final minutes of the Second Act. And the style of the music is clearly Italian and even verista.
In Massenet´s version the libretto makes Manon die in Le Havre; in Puccini there is a scene at that port in which he tries to liberate Manon but fails; however, he appeals to the captain to take him on and he goes with her to New Orleans. And the final act takes place in a wasteland, for they are fugitives. There´s no wasteland near that city in real geography, but no matter, the libretto says so; she dies there, and so will probably be the destiny of Des Grieux, though we are not told.
No less than four librettists labored on the libretto for Puccini, not a good thing for there are too many styles of writing and it shows. Nevertheless, the composer made a giant jump from his "Edgar", very uneven and with a truly bad libretto. Here the passionate melody, the feel for character and the skillful harmony, plus the colorful orchestration, make "Manon Lescaut" the first Puccini opera that has remained in the repertoire. In fact, this year we will see it at the Avenida in the season of Buenos Aires Lírica.
The Metropolitan Opera´s HD Live performances are seen at the Teatro El Nacional and presented by the Fundación Beethoven, and by now they are a yearly and very welcome feature, for we see many artists that don´t visit the Colón with good sound and image.
The protagonists dominate "Manon Lescaut", for she and even more Des Grieux have long parts with several arias and duets, and the flank roles add little. When it was announced, Jonas Kaufmann was supposed to sing the Chevalier, and as he has recorded it with Kristine Opalais (the Met´s Manon) I was looking forward to their joint interpretation. Unfortunately, Kaufmann fell ill; fortunately, Roberto Alagna learnt the role in record time and partnered the soprano. And although I deeply admire Kaufmann, truly Alagna was a splendid Des Grieux. In excellent voice, he showed a complete command of the part and acted with conviction. A veteran of a hundred Met performances, he is a stalwart tenor.
This was the first time I had a chance to appreciate the art of Latvian soprano Kristine Opalais. Born in 1979, at 37 she looks gorgeous, with as fine legs as any model, and although both artists are far from the age of their characters (Manon only 18, Des Grieux in his early Twenties) they prove to be quite believable. She has made a specialty of Puccini roles, and in fact the next date of this series couples them in "Madama Butterfly".
In Manon looks certainly help, but Opalais is also a gifted actress and sings with a fine expansive voice; she has a natural feeling for Puccini´s long lines and a communicative warmth that is crucial in these parts. The timbre isn´t particularly individual, and sometimes she is slightly under the note in her high range, but she remains quite a find and is having an important career.
Manon's brother, Lescaut, was sung correctly but with too much vibrato by Massimo Cavalletti. Geronte, the old seducer, was perfectly sung and acted by bass Brindley Sherratt. The others were in the picture.
Fabio Luisi is the Met´s Principal Conductor and he has just been named to very important posts, for he will be Zurich Opera's Musical Director and has also taken over the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. He deserves them for he combines fine technical control with a sense of color and phrasing that makes his conducting dynamic and expressive. And of course the Met's Orchestra is admirable. So is the Choir.
Alas, the Met is cutting corners with coproductions with Europe, in this case the Festival Hall Baden/Baden, and that comes with the distortion that nowadays pervades opera in that continent. Producer Richard Eyre has had the absurd idea of moving this staging to 1941 occupied France, thus ruining a lot of what happens, mixing the German soldiers with the joyful crowd of the First Act or the prisoners at Le Havre. Curiously, the Spanish translation of the libretto had distortions of its own, the stagecoach becoming a train!
The stage designs (Rob Howell) had their faults in the three initial acts, but became ridiculous in the Fourth, where the "wasteland" was replaced by the uncomfortable ruins of a city. The costumes (Fotini Dimou) at least allowed Manon to be sexy.
For Buenos Aires Herald